Notes from the Island
In June 1608 Captain John Smith sailed up the Potomac River and was
probably the first European to see Sycamore Island. In his Generall
Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles, he wrote:
"Having gone so high as we could with the bote, we met divers Salvages
in Canowes, well loaden with the flesh of Beares, Deere and other beasts,
whereof we had part, here we found mighty Rocks, growing in some places
above the grownd as high as the scrubby trees, and divers other solid
quarries of divers tinctures: and divers places where the waters had
falne from the high mountaines they had left a tinctured spangled skurfe,
that made many bare places seem as guilded."
It's hard to imagine this area four hundred years ago before the dams
and the canal. The water level must have been lower. The Island may have
been larger. Walhonding Creek flowed directly into the Potomac. Indians
lived along the banks and used canoes for transportation, not for
recreation as we do today. In addition to bear, Captain John Smith
mentions beaver, otter, marten and mink. Farther downriver he found
an "aboundance of fish, lying so thicke with their heads above the water,
as for want of nets (our barge driving amongst them) we attempted to catch
them with a frying pan: but we found it a bad instrument to catch fish
Today we still have the beaver. I haven't seen them yet this winter,
but they are clearcutting the maple saplings at the southern tip of the
Island. I wrapped chicken wire around half a dozen trees so those buck-
toothed rodents don't chew on them all. I think they are starting a lodge
on a small island above Rupperts. The beaver also felled a good-sized
tree across the canal 200 yards south of the pedestrian bridge.
I did see the opossum again. It had climbed a dead tree at the
northern end of the Island. I was surprised to see it out in the middle
of the day, but it didn't move as I approached. It had ratty gray fur,
black ears, yellow cheeks and a pink snout. Holly and I saw an opossum a
few nights later near the ferry landing on the Maryland shore, but I don't
know if it was the same one.
The Potomac froze up in the middle of December. The ice was never
thick enough to walk on, but it stretched across to the Virginia shore.
Usually a channel remains open on the Virginia side for a while, but I
think the low water, sluggish current and calm air allowed the river to
freeze more uniformly.
The ice was thick enough so our cat Fred could cross over to the
towpath. Sometimes. One evening he returned with an icicle mohawk down
his back. Apparently he had fallen in, rescued himself and then licked
the water off his fur, except where he couldn't reach down the back of his
The Island survived the gale we had the other day. According to the
news the wind was gusting up to seventy miles an hour. The river was
covered with whitecaps and Broadwater looked more like the Bay. The wind
blew in from the northwest and it must have caught the canoes by the
swimming float at just the right angle and rolled them across the
wildflower patch, because I found them 50-75 feet away from the tree where
they had been stacked.
Holly sighted an adult bald eagle from the pedestrian overpass over
the parkway. Crows were chasing it. We had seen some large birds in the
woods near MacArthur and Walhonding, but we hadn't been able to identify
them at a distance without our binoculars. We saw a tufted titmouse and
some goldfinches and we still see an occasional heron, but I think they
are about to leave for the winter. On the other hand the seagulls are
arriving, bobbing up and down on Broadwater. There will be hundreds of
them by February.
Yesterday we woke up to the sight of large wet snowflakes drifting
past our window. The Island looked beautiful and peaceful. The snow
quickly melted and turned to slush. But we're taking our cross-country
skis out of the toolshed and getting prepared for a real winter blizzard.
It won't be long now.
-- Peter Jones, Sycamore Island Caretaker